Alice Ashton Media

France’s Book Towns

You’ve probably heard of Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Jinbōchō in central Tokyo, and maybe Óbidos in Portugal (now considered to host one of the biggest book festivals in Europe) but did you know France has a book town too. In fact, there are eight of them:

  • Bécherel, Brittany
  • Montolieu, Languedoc-Roussillon
  • Fontenoy-la-Joûte, Alsace-Lorraine
  • Cuisery, Burgundy
  • La Charité-sur-Loire, Burgundy
  • Montmorillon, Aquitaine
  • Ambierle, Loire
  • Esauelbecq, Nord-de-Callais

I have often wondered why there isn’t a book town on the French Riviera. I think Tourrettes-sur-Loup,  Valbonne or even Bar-sur-Loup would be brilliant especially as they are still home to artists, artisans, writers, restaurateurs, and gallery owners.

If you’re travelling around France this summer and sort of a ‘bookish’ person you may like to drive over to one of these eight towns:

Bécherel’s population of 800 enjoys excellent restaurants, cultural events, art galleries, and tourism thanks to numerous literary festivals, bookish exhibits at the Maison du Livre, and as many as 15 bookshops. The idea of turning Bécherel into a book town was raised by Bernard Le Nail, the director of the Cultural Institute of Brittany. The first book festival took place in 1989 and became an annual event organized in spring around Easter. It’s being complemented by other book events, including book markets (first Sunday of every month), and a reading festival (October).

Established in 1989, Montolieu is possibly France’s most successful and picturesque book town. It’s the vision one man – Michel Braibant – who wanted to celebrate not only books, but their production and broader role in arts and culture. The town is famous not just for its dozen or so bookshops, but for its artists and galleries, plus a world-class fine arts collection that attracts visitors from all over the globe. If you do visit, make sure to pop into the Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre, where you can walk through exhibits on the history of writing and publishing, or view a demonstration in paper making, printing, and more bookish arts.

Established in 1993 and named one of the best book towns in the world by The Guardian. Fontenoy-la-Joûte is a very small village of around 300 that swells to more than 100,000 visitors a year through its book fairs alone. While that number has declined somewhat, the town is still home to literary-themed restaurants and shops, a calligrapher, and 10 bookshops. It also hosts a yearly writing contest, art fairs and has a signpost pointing the way toward other book towns around the world.

Established in 1999 and most famous for its city gate made out of giant books. There are 20 bookshops and book-related shops, some with a very specific focus (polar history at Vae Victus, speleology at La Découverte, and social movements at La Chats Noirs, to name a few). Most of the bookshops can be found along Grand Rue, Cuisery’s main street. There are also Gutenberg Press printing demonstrations, monthly book fairs, and an annual short story competition sponsored by Cuisery’s Bookseller Association.

La Charité-sur-Loire
Established 2000. Although slightly on the wane it’s still well worth visiting for the lovely 11th-century priory and the Festival du Mot, which takes place every May. There’s also a literary walking trail/scavenger hunt with famous literary quotations hidden amongst the city’s landmarks.

Established in 2000 with a little over 6,000 residents, Montmorillon is France’s largest book town – or, as the locals call it, a cité de l’ecrit. With 24 bookstores, their yearly Salon du Livre attracting more than a hundred writers, a bookstore bar called De la Trappe aux Livres, a typewriter museum, and bookish art schools (calligraphy, document restoration, etc.), there’s much to see and discover.

Established in 2010, this charming medieval village of less than 2,000 inhabitants has three bookshops open year-round, weekly book fairs, and four larger book festivals focusing on poetry, an Easter book hunt, “International Book of Travelers Day” and graphic novels. Ambierle is also actively recruiting writers and booksellers to move to the community and hosts workshops like book binding and other similar courses.

Established in 2010 and the northernmost book town in France, Esquelbecq is a castle town surrounded by oak forests. Currently home to four booksellers and five artisans, plus a literary festival called Nuit des Livres.